I am reading through Christopher Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, and came across this magnificent passage regarding the law on gleaning in Deuteronomy 24:17-22:
To harvest in such a way as to leave no gleanings would be to deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice. … The sense is therefore, “Do not pick the forgotten sheaf, the remaining olives and grapes, they belong to the alien, orphan and widow.” The remainder of the harvest is theirs; they have every right to do the final harvesting themselves. This means that the landless are not to be totally dependent on handouts from the landowners after every scrap of the crop has been harvested by them. Rather, they are to have the opportunity to work for their own benefit in the fields of God’s land. Those who do not, for various reasons, have a share in the ownership of the land are still to be given the chance to share in the blessing of the land as the bounty of the true landowner.
When the principle of the law is expressed thus, it can be seen to be relevant beyond its immediate context of harvest gleaning–a practice the modern harvesting methods render somewhat unprofitable….. The law asks us, however, not to ban combine harvesters, but to find means of ensuring that the weakest and poorest in the community are enabled to have access to the opportunities they need in order to be able to provide for themselves….
Such community care is itself dependent on corporate awareness of the grace of God. Twice Israel is reminded here of the exodus and its proof of God’s generosity to Israel in its time of utter need (vv. 18, 22). When Israel forgot its history, it forgot its poor. The prophets have to remind them of both. It is not surprising either that in modern Western culture, which has systematically been squeezing the biblical God out of its definition of reality and truth, there is a corresponding resurgence of callousness toward the vulnerable. If the alien, the orphan, and the widow of Deuteronomy have anything in common with the immigrant, the refugee, the homeless, the single parents, the aged, etc. of today, then it is clear that our society is massively guilty of “turning aside justice and rights” from many people in those categories. The portrait of a caring society in these chapters is of a society with a memory at the center of its whole system of moral and social values and norms–the memory of God and God’s power. The phrase “moral vacuum” is being used of the increasingly anarchic callousness of the West. It is a vacuum manufactured by the sucking out of that memory and the denial of any transcendent reality that would undergird our values or challenge our behavior. The gods we worship, though unrecognized as gods, are not the God of exodus. The social gleanings for the poor are accordingly very lean indeed.